Unwrapping 5 surprising facts about the history of chocolate

From the top of the highest mountain to the lowest plains, chocolate holds a special place in the hearts and appetites of people across the world. The silky and delicious treat led Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz to boldly claim, “All you need is love, but a little chocolate now and then doesn’t hurt,” making the candy one of the few unifiers in the world that has somehow also helped the advancement of medicine, and even built towns. Here’s how.

Xocolatada/ Chocolatada ("chocolate party") painted on tiles in Valencia, early 18th century.

Xocolatada/ Chocolatada (“chocolate party”) painted on tiles in Valencia, early 18th century. Image via Wikimedia Commons.

If you think you’re something of a chocaholic then you’ve got nothing on the Maya civilization, which dubbed it the ‘food of the Gods’ and held it in high esteem. In fact, they believed chocolate had mythical qualities, lending those who consumed it a mystical power.

Much more than a just another marketable product, chocolate not only has a rich taste, but also a rich history that has seen it presented to ancient emperors, cross oceans, and even build chocolate-loving communities. There’s far more to chocolate than meets the eye, so we’re serving up a historical tasting menu of delectable chocolate facts for you to unwrap.

1. Chocolate grows from a tree trunk

For so many of us, chocolate candies are grown in foil wrapping, ready to eat. So detached are we from its origins that many of us simply wouldn’t be able to recognise pods growing from the trunk, rather than off the branches of a cocoa tree. Don’t be surprised if you haven’t seen one in your local park, as it’s notoriously difficult to grow and suits climates similar to that of Ivory Coast in western Africa where with 37% of the world’s cocoa beans are grown.

This process of fruit growing from a tree trunk is called cauliflory, which benefits animals and the plant, as animals climbing the trunk to feed will disperse the seeds as they clamber up the tree. They’re not dainty little seeds though; chocolate grows within a big, spiky green pod in the shape of a football, from a family of flowering plants that includes okra, cotton and durian.

The pods are full of beans and pulp and it’s the beans that hold the flavour, but it’s a long process to extract the taste that’s loved by so many. The beans are picked then fermented, before being squished, roasted, and then squished again into a form that can moulded into your favourite chocolate.

2. Mayans and their mythical drink

The consumption of chocolate starts more than 5,000 years ago (5500–1700BC) in Mayo-Chinchipe culture, as they were the first recorded chocolate lovers who paved the way for future chocoholics. Today, M&Ms, Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups, and Hershey’s are the chocolate candy of choice, but the Mayo-Chinchipe people actually consumed chocolate as a warm drink.

It was bitter, but they might have added some chilli for spice, or honey for those with a sweet tooth. It proved to be a tempting treat for the Mayo-Chinchipe people though, as cacao in its raw form contains theobromine, which is an alkaloid like caffeine and held a delicious and moreish hold over its consumers.

To get this moreish liquid, the Mayo-Chinchipe people would have ground down the chocolate nibs into a powder, mix it with water to drink, or stir into a porridge. Sounds like a delicious snack, right? The Mayo-Chinchipe people wouldn’t have thought of this as a food though; along with the Aztecs, they believed that chocolate was in fact a gift from the gods. Some people might still hold this opinion today, but the Aztecs took their devotion even further, using it during religious rituals, giving it to victorious warriors following a battle, and even using cacao beans as currency.

3. Chocolate as a prescription

It was monks and friars who were the unlikely conduits for spreading the virtues of chocolate around Europe. They brought home samples from missionary work in South America as they felt it had medicinal properties. And the monks were right, to a point, as there’s some evidence that polyphenols help reduce blood pressure and have antioxidant properties, although it remains a highly calorific and fatty treat.

This excuse that chocolate is good for you has been heard countless times by parents over the years, but it appears the kids might have actually been on to something. To clarify, this isn’t a message sponsored by the Kids Candy Association, as the Royal Society of Chemistry have published a book on the history of chocolate as a medicine. A Mars a day really may keep the doctor away!

It’s white chocolate, though, that has the strongest medicinal promise. It was actually invented in 1937 as a medicine in Switzerland. The Swiss are known for their love of chocolate and even managed to prescribe it to children in hospital who had lost weight and needed a vitamin-enriched milk supplement. The milk had rejected by the children who said it was too babyish, so it was mixed with cocoa butter and white chocolate was accidentally created. It was called Nestrovit by Nestlé and amazingly is still available to buy in Europe.

4. Chocolate hasn’t always been a sweet treat

Today, there’s no doubting the place of chocolate in the culinary experience. It’s a sweet treat that is rarely part of a main meal, but that hasn’t always been the case.

Chocolate lasagne anyone? It’s a confusing combination that was actually made with pasta in 18th century Italy. That’s by far one of the more tempting, if unusual combinations though, as in Britain they had a concoction called oxcholate, which was a blend of chocolate powder and a thick, salty beef extract that was intended to have a nutritious and restorative effect on ‘invalids and cyclists’ when released in 1890. Sadly it only lasted a few weeks before being withdrawn.

Britain in the 19th century was seemingly the epicentre of peculiar chocolate experimentation, as there are records of chocolate fortified wine, which sounds like a more tempting alternative to oxcholate. Chocolate was also used in a health food drink made with Iceland moss, which is a type of lychen. It didn’t catch on…

5. The town that chocolate built

A town entirely funded and inhabited by the production of chocolate sounds like a tale dreamt up by Willy Wonka. It’s too fantastical to contemplate that chocolate alone could create a community, but that’s what happened at the turn of the century in Britain. And on more than one occasion too.

For this we have the Quakers (a branch of protestant Christianity) to thank. The Quakers built a series of garden cities in England; communities built from scratch with the purpose of making chocolate. One is Bournville, built by Cadbury’s near Birmingham. They built a factory and housing for their workers, as well as a variety of leisure facilities like tennis courts. And as it was a Quaker village, no alcohol was allowed to be sold in the village; a rule which remained until 2015, ending a 120-year-old booze ban.

Another candy producer, Rowntree’s wanted to go even further than Cadbury and solve the problem of slums, sickness and poverty. A big ask for any organisation, let alone a candy manufacturer. They tried anyway and set up a charity to investigate the root causes of poverty and put that research into creating the village of New Earswick in the north of England, as well as a variety of other places around the country. It brings a whole new meaning to the idea of a candy house.